The Czech Republic's swarms of beekeepers

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There are more than 50 thousand beekeepers in the Czech Republic, responsible for the upkeep of over half a million colonies of bees. For a country of around 10 million inhabitants, this is a pretty impressive number. Earlier this week, I went to the Czech Beekeepers Union, to ask Mr. Miloslav Peroutka what the buzz was with beekeeping:

"It's a tradition stretching way back. The story goes that when the first Czechs came here, they settled in a land of milk and honey. We live in a country rich in the production of both of these things, and evidently the first Slavs who came and occupied this territory produced both. So definitely there is a tradition of bee-keeping here."

The Czech Beekeepers Union has an impressive history of its own, having been founded by bee-loving Habsburg Empress Maria-Theresa, all the way back in 1776:

Maria Theresa
"Maria Theresa was a real propagator of beekeeping here. She organized lectures on the subject in the royal court, which she herself attended. Under her rule, beekeepers were given tax-exemptions, they really occupied a very privileged position in society. The things they produced were invaluable, you see. At that time, wax was used to make church candles and so forth. Bee-products were widely-used. And another interesting thing is that when Austro-Hungary fell and Czechoslovakia was born, the third establishment to be founded by the government was the beekeepers' research institute."

The golden age of Czech beekeeping was at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, when the Carniolan Bee was introduced into the country. Up until then, the Czech countryside was the stomping ground of its rather angrier cousin, the Black Bee, which was considerably more difficult to rear.

It may no longer be the heyday of Czech beekeeping, but the pastime is still as popular as ever here. I asked avid apiarist Vaclav Uher why:

"I think it is because it is a tradition. I don't see any other reason for it, because it can be a big strain on your finances. Especially in the current climate. I think the main reason people do this is because they just love bees. Or it can be entertainment, a hobby. I personally keep bees so that I can study the way they live together and the way they behave, honey is just a bonus, really."

The Uher family has been keeping bees for the last 16 years. Son Tomas Uher explains how he grew up with his father's passion:

"It was originally my mother's idea that we should get some bees, and then my father became very curious as to what it is all about. So then it became my father's hobby, and as he gradually discovered that proper bee-keeping requires more hives, and therefore more work, me and my brothers and sisters naturally began to help him. And so since I was 11, I think, bees were a pretty big part of my life. There were times when I liked it, especially when the honey came, and when I got to take a bite from the honey comb - that was fantastic. But there were things of course that I hated, or that I was rather concerned about, like when the bees were buzzing around me, and when they stung my head. I sometimes got stung as many as three times in the head at once, which was not nice."

Back in the safety of the Union of Beekeper's Prague office, I asked Mr. Peroutka if beekeeping could actually ever be dangerous:

"In modern times, there has been a growth in the number of people who are allergic to bee-stings. Here in the Czech Republic, about 3% of the population are allergic to bees, and of course for them, to be stung by one would be dangerous. But this is an illness that these people have, and it's not the poor bee's fault. Otherwise, there is nothing dangerous about keeping bees, if you don't get a large amount of stings at once, and if you aren't allergic to the animals, then its just a really good hobby to have."

Having never actually been stung by a bee, I don't know if I am in that unfortunate 3% of allergy sufferers. So I was quite tentative upon my visit to the Uher's hives. I was dressed up to the nines in protective clothing, and emerged without a sting. However, my poor microphone cannot boast the same thing.

Mr. Uher was preparing his bees for the winter, pouring a sugary mixture into the hives and releasing the queens, which he had been storing elsewhere, back into the colonies. During this process, his son Tomas explained what made a queen bee:

"It's a very funny thing, it is basically just a change in diet for one of the larvae. Normally, the larvae are fed pollen and honey and water. But if the bees decide to have a queen, then as well as all of this water and honey and pollen, they feed the larva royal jelly, and that is how it becomes a queen. The queen lives for much longer than any other bee, she can live for up to five years. The bees can tell if the queen is getting old and is no longer good enough. If that is the case, then they start to prepare conditions for a new queen."

What do they do to the old one? I hope they're nice to her!

"Well, I have to disappoint you there, I'm afraid. They kill her basically. They sting her to death."

The Uher's hives are modest, and modern - a row of crates neatly stacked with differently-coloured doors so that the bees know which one is theirs.

But in the Czech Republic, the tradition is not to have a number of beehives but a 'vcelin' - which basically looks like a garden shed, and which houses several colonies of bees all in one. Some of these vcelins are really beautifully decorated. Mr. Peroutka explains to me how:

"Most of the decorations take the form of a motto like 'God bless our hard work'. So, religious people might write something asking God to help the bees in their toil. There are calls to bless the bees' strength and honey too. And of course then there are pictures, either of some country idyll or of the patron saint of beekeepers, Saint Ambrose. You often find the Virgin Mary and Jesus painted onto hives as well. People considered bees and the way they work together as an ideal template for human society, and so asking God to bless the bees' hard work meant that they were asking God to bless them and their hard work too."

It surprised me to here that bees can also be reared in Prague:

"Interestingly, Prague is a really good place to keep bees. There are lots of parks, and lots of gardens, and honey yields here are higher than anywhere else in the country. This is because Prague, being a big city, forms its own microclimate. It is warmer here, and it's also a sheltered space. All this means that the beekeepers up in Hradcany have record harvests of honey each year, and produce much more than their counterparts in the countryside."

With the promise of such big returns, I'm half tempted to set up a bee colony out in my garden. But I wonder what the neighbours would say...